How Political Parties Get Marketing Messages Right (and Wrong)

It’s just a couple of days since Australia went to the polls to elect the 45th Parliament of Australia. We’re possibly weeks away from a result, and the election result may be a hung parliament.

In the aftermath of an election which hasn’t yet delivered a clear winner who can form a majority, the major parties will be measuring the success of their marketing campaigns and trying to learn from what went right and wrong.

They’ll be especially interested in working out how The Greens, various independents and minor parties like the Nick Xenophon Team and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation managed to gain more valuable seats in the Lower House and Senate despite having limited marketing resources and funding.

Meanwhile, the minor parties will be rejoicing in their success and looking to build on it in the month and years ahead.

A key to the major parties’ lack of success is, in my opinion, the need that they have to settle on a single marketing message for the whole of Australia which they can broadcast in mass media advertising across the nation. This means that for the Coalition, they stuck to an emphasis on “Jobs and Growth” while Labor relied on “Education and Health”.

This is the major parties playing to their strengths. Whatever the truth is, in general the electorate see the Liberal and National parties as “better for business” and the Labor Party as “better on health and education”.

But the problem in having one message and relentlessly sticking to it is that you don’t have the flexibility to put resources into more subtle messages at a local level where different issue on the national agenda may strike a chord with voters.

It also means that voters get bored.

Where Labor gained a slight advantage in the final week of the long eight week campaign is that they shifted their marketing message slightly to “Save Medicare” while the Coalition stuck with “Jobs and Growth”.

Changing tack in the final days of the campaign probably managed to sow seeds of doubt in many voter’s minds and didn’t give the Government time to mount an effective counter argument. And that was enough to swing the voting pendulum further their way than anyone would have predicted at the outset. It was also an example of a clever mix of positive and negative messaging which put the Coalition on the defensive.

The minor parties had the benefit of plenty of free press for their policy positions and were able to disseminate more focused “niche” messages which helped them succeed.

Pauline Hanson knows her potential electors well and stuck to her xenophobic stance against Islam which apparently appealed to many Queenslanders. Meanwhile Nick Xenophon and his Team in South Australia were able to focus on “Manufacturing Jobs for SA” backed up with his long-term position on predatory gambling.

This is a prime example of how smaller players in any market can succeed in beating bigger players by knowing their target market well and getting the messaging on key issues (or customer needs) right.

When you understand your target market and their needs you can use that knowledge to build a strong narrative around a candidate or leader that resonates with your audience.

Malcolm Turnbull’s narrative is all about his business roots, and Bill Shorten’s is about unionism. Nick Xenophon’s is about anti-pokies activism and Pauline Hanson is a former fish-and-chip owner (read “average Aussie”). Their narratives tell a story which becomes part of their personal brand and this rubs off on their parties’ brands.

As we move forward into a new political reality in Australia where the power seems to be shifting away from the majors, all political parties will need to get back to basics with their marketing strategies.

And they’ll need to remember that elections are no longer won and lost on the six o’clock news or the front pages of the daily newspapers, but in the town and suburbs of Australia and in Australian voters’ Facebook timelines.